A national outcry over killings and disappearances of Indigenous women has reached what the New York Times calls a boiling point in Big Horn County, a rural stretch of Montana mountains and ranch lands that contains the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations and has among the highest rate of missing and murdered Native Americans nationwide. Local activists have an incomplete count of 28 Native women who have gone missing in Big Horn County. For decades, such disappearances almost invariably played out in obscurity, with modest investigations that languished unsolved. The crisis was unheeded until a few years ago, when families’ stories of loved ones sex trafficked, murdered or dismissed as chronic runaways gained traction via grass-roots organizing and social media, forcing politicians and law enforcement to take notice.
Last year, 5,590 Indigenous women were reported missing to the FBI National Crime Information Center. Advocates say the high rates of violence suffered by Indigenous people are not reflected in official accounting. Some victims are misclassified as Asian or Hispanic, are overlooked if they live in urban areas instead of reservations, or their cases are lost in a maze over which state, federal or tribal law enforcement agency should investigate. Officials said these can be difficult cases to investigate, sometimes ranging over vast expanses, but they are committed to solving them. “Native women have been dehumanized from the very beginning,” said Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a board member of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which has a case database. “The law has failed us time and time again. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of our people dying, of our kids going to jail.” Federal and state agencies have responded with task forces and law-enforcement resources, including a new Justice Department effort to coordinate responses to Indian Country disappearances and murders.